Commentary: Time to scrap shale gas ‘game-changer’ myth

Michael Vickerman is program and policy director of RENEW Wisconsin.

Michael Vickerman is program and policy director of RENEW Wisconsin.

By Michael Vickerman

As this latest blast of arctic air slides away from the Upper Midwest, now is a good time to take stock of the conventional wisdom that grips natural gas markets today.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) last week reported another large weekly withdrawal of natural gas–230 billion cubic feet (bcf)–from underground inventories. While this is a big number, it is well short of the record-setting 287 bcf withdrawal reported two weeks earlier. This week’s report may eclipse that number.

The heavy demand for natural gas this winter leaves inventories at their lowest levels for this time of year since 2004.  Even if temperatures returned to normal this February and March, we could finish the heating season with only one-third the volume in storage back in early November.

In fact, we’re on track to pull 26 trillion cubic feet (tcf) out of storage this heating season, a volume likely to exceed all the natural gas extracted from domestic sources last year (an estimated 25.5 trillion cubic feet).

Remember the extraordinary surplus that accumulated in the winter of 2011-2012? It’s ancient history now. Without a moment’s thought to what was happening, we managed to Hoover through every last cubic foot of ballooning inventories that in 2012 sent gas prices plunging down to levels not seen since 2002. One month into 2014, the pendulum has clearly swung over to the deficit side of the supply-demand equilibrium.

The problem is less a shortage of supply—domestic extraction volumes have risen nearly 50 percent in a mere eight years—than an accelerating “longage” of demand.  Notwithstanding the sluggish economy, baseline consumption is rising, stoked by low commodity prices that discourage conservation efforts and a growing supply of residences and businesses to heat.  Even though power companies scaled back their use of natural gas in 2013, overall gas consumption rose 2 percent from 2012 levels, according to EIA estimates.

Stir into that dynamic the coldest winter in the Upper Midwest this century and spice it with slowing production growth reported last year, and you have all but one of the ingredients needed for a dramatic upward re-pricing of this precious energy resource.

What is the missing ingredient here? A new narrative to combat the “shale gas miracle” myth that has been drummed into every adult American’s brain and belief system, courtesy of a well-financed and expertly orchestrated public relations campaign sponsored by the fossil energy industry.

Most Americans now believe that there is enough recoverable natural gas lurking under our feet to heat and power this country well into the next century. A fairy tale to be sure, but as long as it is one we believe to be true, we will have trouble recognizing the signals that tell us that the supply-demand picture is tightening.

Let’s focus on the supply picture for a moment. Did anyone notice that natural gas extraction volumes rose by only 1 percent in 2013? This was “the lowest annual growth since 2005,” the EIA wrote, noting also that “this production growth was essentially flat when compared to the 5 percent growth in 2012 and the 7 percent growth in 2011.” That modest bump failed to keep pace with EIA’s estimate for increased gas usage last year.

In spite of the recent record-setting withdrawals, the price of natural gas, now around $5.00 per MMBtu, is substantially below the $8.00 threshold that it sold for in January 2008, even though the amount of gas in storage then was 13 percent higher than today’s volumes.

One market analyst who clearly hasn’t noticed the changing picture told Bloomberg reporter Christine Buurma earlier this week that “the U.S. market remains awash in gas,” and dismissed the recent price rally as “transitory and not sustainable.”  This analyst believes that prices could drop back to $4.00, a level widely thought several months ago to represent the price ceiling for this commodity.

Not to be outdone, another market analyst predicted a retreat to $3.00 prices by 2016. How this resurgence of supply can be accomplished when prices are dropping is not explained.

Here we see the power of the shale gas “game-changer” myth. Output growth is slackening and weather-related demand is spiking, yet energy analysts and market commentators still expect 2014’s prices to conform to the pattern set several years ago, when we were truly awash in gas.

While the rock bottom prices of 2012 proved very effective in working supplies back down to normal levels, they have also motivated energy companies to conserve cash, cut their exploration budgets, and squeeze as much product as pssible from known reserves.  Having operated in survival mode since the great gas bubble of 2012, these firms are too cash-strapped to ramp up exploration and extraction activity. What they would need to make that happen is, first and foremost, a return to 2008-level prices.

What is not sustainable for much longer is $4.00 natural gas, especially in light of certain physical and economic realities, such as:

  • Steep decline rates in the output from wells tapping into shale gas released by hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”);
  • Continuing expansion of gas-fired generating capacity substituting for coal and nuclear power plants now being retired; and
  • Accelerating investments in infrastructure to liquefy domestically produced natural gas for export to Europe and Asia, which would bring to bear global pricing pressures on a commodity currently enjoying a substantial discount relative to overseas markets.

On the last point, for a taste of what global pricing pressure can do to a formerly low-cost energy source, observe the supply-demand-pricing dynamic that is now sending Midwest propane markets into gyrations. True, a number of unforeseeable events, some of them weather-related, converged to elevate propane use over the last six months, but in a globalized market, the people who can pay the most for a valuable commodity are often not the ones who need it the most.

Anyone who has ever watched a football game in January knows that subzero temperatures can be a game-changer, too. Perhaps this remarkable stretch of winter weather will be just the thing to pierce through the veil of wishful thinking and comforting fairy tales that undermine our collective ability to face our uncertain energy future, and to make all necessary preparations.

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